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Windsor charged for Chevy Volt

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When the first electric cars reach showrooms in 2011, Windsor intends to be the first municipality in Canada to have public charging stations available to keep them rolling down city streets.

The day after General Motors unveiled the production version of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car, Enwin Utilities and the City of Windsor announced they are laying the groundwork to create the infrastructure for the Volt and its competitors.

As many as six plug-in hybrid electric vehicles from GM, Toyota, Nissan and possibly Chrysler are expected to be available for consumer purchase by early 2011. Windsor wants to be the first city in Canada to make them feel right at home, Mayor Eddie Francis said.

"When these cars are rolled out you're going to need a plan for them to plug in," Francis said, using GM's World Headquarters building in downtown Detroit as the backdrop behind a podium on Windsor's waterfront. "If consumer demand drives electric vehicle sales then the infrastructure will be there to support them."

That will likely require charging stations at shopping malls, hotels and public parking garages, each of them operated on "smart meters" so consumers can plug in when electricity is cheapest and carefully measure their power consumption.

Enwin will spend $40,000 over the next two years studying how to create that infrastructure for plug-in vehicles. The charging stations could be operated by the utility or they might be farmed out to private enterprise, said Max Zalev, chairman of Enwin's board.

Enwin has joined a partnership of 40 other utilities in North America which are working with GM to prepare consumers for the electrification of the car. "It's a ground-floor effort," said Lawrence Musyj, director of conservation and energy management for Enwin. "They're coming out with the vehicle -- are utilities going to be ready?

"It seems like a small thing to plug in a vehicle," Musyj said Wednesday. "But to plug in 2,000 or 3,000 of them, what does that do to your grid? If sales start to take off, (electric cars) will definitely have an impact" on Enwin and other public utilities.

Larry Burns, vice-president of research and development for General Motors, said GM started warning utilities, architects, city planners and others last year that they should start thinking about creating infrastructure to accommodate the electrification of the car.

Detroit Edison is also in the alliance of utilities, each of which will be loaned a pre-production version of the Chevy Volt when the prototypes begin coming off the production line in Hamtramck, Mich., some time in 2010.

Francis said it hasn't been decided yet whether Windsor's Volt will wear an Enwin or a city logo. It will be put into service in either one fleet or the other as a working test mule, as pre-production vehicles are known.

"It's always good to have a test vehicle on the streets of Windsor right across the street from GM," the mayor said, gesturing across the Detroit River. An early embrace of the emerging technology could be good for the region's industrial base and its post-secondary schools, including the University of Windsor's automotive studies program.

The Volt will be able to travel 64 kilometres on a full electric charge, then drive a further 400-plus kilometres when its tiny gasoline engine kicks in to drive an on-board generator. The car will operate under electric power at all times, and the gas engine never drives the car.

Because of that propulsion setup, GM started referring to the Volt this week as an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, or E-REV. It can be fully charged on 120-volt household power in about eight hours, or in three hours if hooked up to a heavier 240-volt outlet of the sort that usually powers clothes dryers or electric stoves.

Musyj said GM has told Enwin and the other utilities it is leaning toward requiring 240-volt hookups for the Volt to reduce charging time. But that would require that buyers of the car have a special outlet installed in their garages and that special plugs be available in public places.

The aftermarket potential of electric vehicles is something a wide range of businesses should probably be looking at, Zalev said. Utilities, dealers, auto parts stores and other businesses may have to start selling "garage kits" consisting of timers and heavy-duty cables to charge electric vehicles.

"We're not sure how it's going to play out in Ontario," Zalev said of who will emerge as suppliers of electrical energy to the drivers of the future. "The Volt represents the potential of being a game-changing

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